My daughter has two mothers.
My daughter also has two fathers, although only one is in her life.
I didn’t know this at first. When Emma was placed with us at birth, I believed what I’d been told: that adoptive parents are the “real” parents. That love is enough. That as long as we didn’t keep secrets, and Emma could reach out to her biological family as an adult, she would be well-adjusted and free of trauma. That we had done a grand and generous thing by agreeing to meet with Kim when she was pregnant, and giving our baby the name she had asked us to use. So we signed the contract agreeing to send pictures and updates to the agency every few months and patted ourselves on the back. And then we stocked our shelves with picture books about adoption, took the birth certificate we were given with only our names on it, and sailed off into the future with our very own daughter, just as if she had been born to us.
Emma loved reading those picture books with their happy endings – smiling babies with adoring families. We’re progressive and open-minded, so some of those adoring parents were same-sex couples and some were single, but that was always the last page of the book. She would clap and point and say “Like me! With Mommy and Daddy!” Yes, sweetie, just like you. Let’s close the book and go to sleep.
I don’t know when that changed, when she started to ask about Kim, but as Emma grew older, those questions became more frequent and more insistent. Who was she? Where was she? Why did we only have one picture of her? Where was the rest of her family? What were their names? And, finally, the question I had been dreading: when can I meet her?
We knew Kim lived two hours away – when Emma was four, we sent our full names and contact info in one of the update letters, and we’d been in touch by phone, Email and Facebook. Kim sent loving messages, said she missed us and Emma, and forwarded school photos of her older son. She was no longer a shadow or a memory – she was a real woman, a mom like me, and the only other person on the planet who loved our daughter as much as we did. I realized that while the court had severed her legal rights to Emma, the judge hadn’t – and couldn’t – remove her status as Emma’s mother, no matter what the birth certificate said.
We always figured that someday, some far-in-the-future-day, Emma would join the conversation. But here was our kid, our bright, affectionate, talented kid, telling us very clearly that someday needed to be now. We stalled for a long time, until one night she looked up from her pillow and said “Mommy, you keep telling me we’re going to meet Kim, but you never do anything about it.”
Why were we stalling? We were scared. I didn’t want to acknowledge that anyone else had a claim on our kid, even if that claim was one of love. We didn’t know how to have a relationship with this woman who had our daughter’s eyebrows and one-sided smile. We felt guilty and awkward and terrified that Emma would like her better, or that Kim would think we were doing a bad job as parents. We started talking with a therapist who specialized in adoption issues.
And then one day, Emma came home from religious school with a picture of a tree. Her name was on the trunk, and there were two separate puffs of leaves – one green, and one blue, with a helpful legend at the bottom to explain that the blue side was her adoptive family and the green side was her biological family. Our side was full of names – our names, and then her grandparents, and her cousins and aunts and uncles. The other side had only three names – the names she knew, of her mother and father and brother – and a bunch of blanks. “Those are the people I don’t know yet,” she told us, as she headed to the kitchen to get a snack. On the top of the page it said MY FAMILY.
David and I realized that if this was Emma’s family, it was also our family. And if this was our family, then we could manage the relationship. We called Kim, and made a date to meet at her apartment, where we exchanged kisses and hugs and Christmas/Chanukah gifts, and then we took Emma and her brother and three of her cousins to Chuck E Cheese. It was a typical afternoon at the mall, and it changed everything.
Now I hear Emma tell her friends “I have two moms,” and I don’t wince. Last year, she gave Kim a necklace that says “Mother” and kept the matching “daughter” necklace for herself. We don’t see Kim and her family as often as we’d like, but they will come to Emma’s bat mitzvah and join us in celebrating our child. And when I ask Emma what advice I should give to other adoptive parents, she says, “They should do this SOONER. You and Daddy waited too long”.
Open adoption isn’t a panacea. Not everyone is as generous and supportive as Kim, who clearly loves Emma deeply and recognizes that we are the day-to-day parents. Emma still struggles with grief and guilt, and I sometimes long for a less complex path through family life. When we’re in the throes of pre-teen moodiness, I worry that she’s resentful because we took her from Kim, or angry that her birth father isn’t available. Then I remind myself that all those emotions would still be there whether or not Kim was part of our lives, because they are almost universal for adoptees, and I listen when Emma tells me she is happier now than she’s ever been, because she feels as if a missing piece of herself has been returned.
My daughter has two mothers, and my husband and I are very grateful.
Jenni Levy is an internist specializing in hospice and palliative medicine. She lives in Allentown, PA, with her husband, her daughter, and a large, rambunctious black Labrador.